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Question: Who are the top five coaches in college basketball? Depending on who you ask, I'm sure you are going to get a lot of Roy Williams and Coach K's; Jim Calhouns and Jim Boeheims; Tom Izzos and Bo Ryans; probably some Rick Barnes, Billy Donovans, Ben Howlands and Coach Cal's as well.
How many people would put John Beilein on that list? Not many.
Well, maybe its about time people started mentioning him. Beilein's Michigan Wolverines knocked off their second top 10 team of the season on Saturday when they beat Duke 81-73. They also beat UCLA in the semi-finals of the pre-season NIT. I don't think any team in the country can boast two wins that impressive. Maybe North Carolina, with wins over Michigan State and Notre Dame.
Yes, this is the same Michigan team that lost 22 games last year and hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since '98 (the Ed Martin scandal and fallout had a lot to do with that) after making three Final Fours in five years from '89 to '93.
And no, its not the first time Beilein has turned a program around. He coached at LeMoyne from '83-'92, where he took a failing program and made them perennial contenders.
His next stop was Richmond, where he made two NIT's (reaching the quarters one year) and one NCAA tourney (where the Spiders knocked off South Carolina in the first round).
His last stop before Michigan was at West Virginia. There, he made back-to-back NCAA tournaments (reaching the Elite 8 and the Sweet 16) and the next year won 27 games and made the NIT despite losing 80% of their scoring (ironically, his first three D1 stops lasted five years, so in 2012, Penn State and St. John's should drop him a line).
So why is Beilein consistently over-looked? For one, a few Sweet 16 and Elite 8 trips are great, but he has no Final Fours, let alone a national title. But to his credit, his MO is to take over a struggling program, revive it, and then head somewhere else (I don't know if that was his plan exactly, as every job change was a move to a bigger program, and leaving West Virginia coincided with his son's graduation). Building a national champ isn't easy, especially when you are starting with a 10-22 team.
Another reason is that he earned the label "system coach". He has always and will always run his back door motion offense and his 1-3-1 zone defense. It is kind of unfair that he gets this rap when the fact of the matter is, nearly every coach is a system coach. Coach Cal runs his dribble drive motion. Roy Williams wants fast breaks and secondary breaks. John Thompson III has his Princeton offense. If they get a couple extremely talented guys that don't really fit their system, they'll tweak it a little bit to help the player fit.
But Beilein can do the same thing. Manny Harris (did you know his real name is Corperryale?) and DeShawn Sims aren't exactly Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnoggle. They are similar, but both Harris and Sims are much more adept at getting to the rim than Gansey and Pittsnoggle, while the latter two were better spot up shooters.
So this year, Beilein is allowing Harris and Sims more leash when it comes to creating within the offense. Against Duke, both Sims and Harris attacked the rim from the wing off of the first pass, something that never happened when Beilein was at WVU.
The thing with Beilein is that he is so good at finding the right guy to fit into what he wants to do. He doesn't need the top 25 recruits. He doesn't want the freakishly athletic guy with no offensive skills or the uber-talented but self-centered gunner.
No matter the position, all Beilein wants is someone that can handle the ball a little bit, is a smart player/good passer/good decision maker, can shoot the lights out, and is willing to buy into what Beilein believes. The only other guy I can think of with as much success as Beilein that recruits strictly for his system (ignoring top prospects) is Bo Ryan at Wisconsin.
When it comes down to it, there are really three qualities a school will look for in a coach. The first is his coaching ability: his knowledge of the x's-and-o's, his ability to game plan, the way he handles a group of kids. The second is his ability to handle the media and portray the university in a good light (why do you think Bob Knight got the axe at Indiana). The third is how he recruits. Is he going to be able to get the guys he needs to win? I think Beilein has proven himself in all three.
When ranking coaches, it all depends on what you are grading them on. I don't think there is a better recruiter right now than John Calipari and his Memphis staff. Coach K might be the best with the media. You may hate him, but he always says and does the right thing, and seems like a genuinely good guy that truly cares about his players. And to even be considered for a head job at any of these schools, you have to know basketball inside and out.
But when it comes to running your system and getting the most out of the guys on your roster, is there anyone better than Beilein?